How the Devil and an Irish Folk Story Created the Jack O' Lantern

How the Devil and an Irish Folk Story Created the Jack O’ Lantern

By Wyatt Redd

The jack-o’-lantern is one of the most cherished Halloween traditions. And like many holiday traditions, not many people know exactly where it came from. It’s simply one of the things you are supposed to do at Halloween. But as it turns out, the history of the jack-o’-lantern can be traced back to Ireland.

There, the phrase we associate today with carved pumpkins originally meant something very different. Originally, jack-o’-lantern or “Jack-of-the-Lantern” referred to mysterious lights that floated over the bogs and a stingy man who once made a deal with the Devil.

You may have heard of bog lights before, though they go by many different names: Will-o’-the-wisps, corpse candles, or fox-fire, to name a few. Regardless of what you call them, the phenomenon is the same. Bog lights are glowing orbs that sometimes rise out of swampy ground and float through the night.

Today, scientists believe that they are collections of swamp gas that spontaneously ignite under the right conditions. But in the time before they were well understood, people often interpreted them as the spirits of the dead, forced to wander through the countryside. The Irish had their own theory about these lights and referred to them as Jack-of-the-Lantern.

Jack-o-lantern
Jack-o-lantern. Public Domain Images

The story of Jack-of-the-Lantern, or Stingy Jack as he was known in life, usually goes something like this: One night, Stingy Jack was drinking in a tavern when a mysterious man in dark clothes walked in. Jack invited the man to share a drink with him. Upon learning that the stranger was the Devil, and upon being presented with the tab, Jack convinced the Devil to turn himself into a coin that Jack could use to pay his bill. The Devil agreed on the condition that he get Jack’s soul in exchange.

But instead of using the coin to pay his bill, Jack took it with him and carved the shape of the cross on the coin so that the Devil couldn’t change back. The Devil pleaded with Jack to let him go and Jack agreed, but only if the Devil promised to never collect the soul Jack owed him. The Devil reluctantly agreed and so Jack scratched out the cross on the coin and freed the Devil from his pocket. But according to legend, this wasn’t the only time that Jack and the Devil would meet.

Later, the same Jack was sitting in an orchard when he ran into the Devil once again. Jack, as lazy as he was greedy, convinced the Devil to climb into an apple tree and pick Jack something to eat. The Devil agreed, once again on the condition that Jack would pay for the apples with his soul. But once the Devil was in the tree, Jack carved a cross into the trunk, trapping the Devil. Jack and the Devil reached an agreement that Jack would let him go if he agreed to never take Jack into Hell. Unfortunately for Jack, this deal didn’t work out the way he planned.